She may call it pleasure, but it's painful to watch

THE CINEMA was two-thirds empty. It shouldn't have been. It was Sunday, it was raining, and Madonna's Body of Evidence had only just come on general release in Britain. When another rainy Sunday was spent watching Strictly Ballroom, the cinema was full even though it had been showing for weeks.

This tells us something. All the young people I know - Madonna's fans when she was emblematic of the Eighties - aren't sure they'll bother with this one. Though they don't share the piety of the tabloid protest that 'she's gone too far', they are disconnected from what she is doing. Has she gone too far? Or not far enough?

Perhaps her weakness is that she is a coy mistress, that 'Once a Catholic . . .' she is cauterised by her argument with the Holy Father, and still, even in her exhibitionism, shrouded in some kind of shame.

Body of Evidence is in the genre of backlash movies, in which the strong woman is not a prototype of power but a contagion. The movie's propaganda, already promoted in Sex and glimpsed in the witty In Bed With Madonna, is that pain is pleasure. It is this difficult dialectic, in which defeat masquerades as power-dressing, that unsettles her admirers.

Her audacity is shadowed by a failure of nerve: she is diffident about her desire for women. She gains respectability in her ruminations about family life. She finds sex most pleasurable when it hurts most. Her radicalism sounds like that of her father's generation, even if it looks like the post-punk chic of the Eighties.

Sex and Body of Evidence are codified in banal pornographic convention. The fiction that her satire is all her own work is belied by her appropriation of an ancient template: before Madonna's fantasies came somebody else's fantasies.

Her fans became mutinous when her image of sexual potency metamorphosed into that of a sexual object. At the same time, the misanthropic Camille Paglia acclaimed it as Madonna's reassertion of 'woman's command of the sexual realm'. But it was not, as Paglia - the feminist every anti-feminist loves to love - would have it, 'the full, florid expression of the whore's ancient rule over men'. Whores don't rule men - they do business with men. Madonna does not demand dominion, she embodies the fantasies of all the voyeurs and abusers in history. In her Sex book, she is a propagandist for pleasure who cannot hide evidence of an exhausting effort to pre-empt pain. Madonna shocks not because she is about pain, but because she is in pain, and she offers neither the grief nor the dignity that is evidence of recovery.

That is why one of the most famous women in the world is a pallid shudder when we see her beside the great black women who have inscribed pain into the archive of modern popular culture. Tina Turner survived a dangerous man with public candour and courage. A magnificent middle-aged woman whose control is manifest when she dances in impossible shoes, stays inside tiny frocks and sings the pain of a millennium in Private Dancer. She's not naughty, she's nice. And so sexy. Think also of Billie Holiday's classic 'Strange Fruit', a lament for America's lynched black men. Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison have written sorrow and survival into our collective consciousness like no one ever did before. These women's craft offers catharsis, for both men and women.

The maddening thing about Madonna is that pain is palpable and yet denied. Battered women must like being hurt, she insists. The most frightening moment in In Bed With Madonna is her refusal to sympathise with a colleague who has just been raped. Buggered, actually.

Perhaps she arouses anger because she puts pain on the agenda - not for nothing her affinity with Marilyn Monroe - and then does a body swerve. The illusion of a sexual gladiator is betrayed by the brittle bravado of a victim; she becomes a delinquent who is cheeky rather than challenging. This sexual warrior leaves us with the spectre of a poor soul. Her sadness haunts the screen and accuses the audience. Empathy is forbidden. That's why this sexual warrior makes us feel that she is not so much insatiable as inconsolable.